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4 Reasons Why Shrewsbury Folk Festival Is Simply Unmissable (incl. 2019 Review)

Even though I only made it to two festivals this summer, I made sure one of them was Shrewsbury Folk Festival. It was my 8th time in a row and it’s always a fantastic weekend of live music, dancing and fun. This time we managed to have another heat wave coincide with the bank holiday weekend, like in 2017, which made for a completely rain-free festival, hurrah.

If you’ve never been to SFF, here are the best reasons to join us next year and the next and the one after that…

Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2019 Village Stage with audience in the sunshine.

The quality line-up

Even though there wasn’t enough Americana on the bill this time around for my liking, I’m always amazed at the great variety of brilliant musicians who play the festival. Now being based in Scotland, I was particulary excited to see the fabulous Skerryvore make a return as the Monday headliners (who just about made it from the airport coming from the US leg of a tour) as well as the always excellent Capercaillie. The festival also showcases up and coming local artists on the Launchpad stage, which this year included young guitar talent George Nash.

Mankala band from Bristol performing at Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2019

While I enjoyed the sets by US artists Amythyst Kiah, Birds of Chicago, Rev. Seckou, Cajun Country Revival and Aine Tyrell from Ireland, I was most impressed with the world music collaborations this year. These included Michael Messer’s Mitra (jazz/blues/classical Indian), AKA Trio (musicians from Brazil, Italy & Senegal) and Mankala (see pic above), all well worth checking out. I also always enjoy Kate Rusby, Oysterband and the While & Matthews duo had several sets, with guest musicians like Belinda O’Hooley, to celebrate their 25th musical anniversary. New to me Jiggy playing traditional music from Ireland with a modern twist were probably my fav new find this year, indeed I was surprised I had never heard of them before.

The additional activities

I always pick up my festival programme (one of the best ones around, really detailed and beautiful with band descriptions and everything you need to know) when I arrive on Thursday and aim to make it to a few other things than ‘just’ listening to music. But every single time I have to admit that there just isn’t enough time to get to everything – which is also a nice problem to have as it means there is so much on, you’ll absolutely never get bored. How could you?

Vegetarian food at one of the many food stalls at Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2019.

Included in your festival ticket are songwriting workshops, you can learn every instrument you can think of from scratch (incl. bodhran, mountain dulcimer, flute & ukulele), browse the market stalls, join a yoga session or spend a whole day in the dance tent. One of my favourite things this year was the children’s parade with dozens of beautiful animal paper lanterns and proud youngsters showing them off to the sound of the crowd singing ‘Yellow Submarine’ as this year it was a maritime theme – just magical!

I’m proud to say I at least managed to make it to one ceilidh (with John Spiers playing live for us, no less), which was a lot of fun. And ceilidhs are so inclusive, you don’t need to know what you’re doing or bring a dance partner, you can simply join in and that includes wheel chair users and people of all ages (the youngest dancer was probably four years old).

The historic town of Shrewsbury

The town of Shrewsbury is a shortish walk from the festival site, so I often head there along the river to stock up on food supplies, have a coffee and browse the charity shops. You can explore the town’s heritage, join a walking tour or enjoy a river cruise. They also have a number of good outdoor shops, which is handy if you’re camping. You might even bump into some festival musicians, some of whom stay in town if they don’t get put up in homestays nearby. You’ll also run into lots of other festival goers (easily recognisable by their wristbands or festival t-shirts) and everyone usually has a good story about previous years or favourite acts.

Shrewsbury library in Shropshire and statue of Charles Darwin.

The friendly atmosphere

SFF is largely staffed by (hundreds of) volunteers who tend to join the same team every year, so they really know what they’re doing. This makes for a calm, relaxed atmosphere and you’ll hardly notice the festival security team (who are really just there as a back-up). There are plenty of tables and chairs to sit and chat over a coffee, people practise their instruments in the bar, hub or outside their tents and are generally respectful of each other. I have hardly ever come across anyone drunk and/or rowdy, it’s just not that kind of place.

Bramble the spaniels helps out at artist reception at Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2019.

Having said that, the festival attracts people of absolutely all ages, from families with toddlers (the youngest I met this year was a 5-week old baby!) to retired folks and everyone in between. Compared to more crowded festivals (e.g. the also excellent Cambridge Folk Festival) there is a lot of space, almost never much mud, even if it rains persistently like in previous years, and hardly any queues (maybe apart from peak lunch & dinner times). Oh and the festival is dog-friendly of course and even the pooches like to join in like beautiful Bramble (see pic above). All of this guarantees a stress-free, super relaxing weekend of music!

George Nash playing the Launchpad stage at Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2019.

So join us, sign up as a volunteer or grab a festival ticket, bring your guitar and be prepared to talk to strangers. Like a woman I met on the train on the way home to Glasgow remarked: It’s so nice when people still talk to each other. It is, isn’t it? SFF is one of those places where you’ll get a friendly hello back when you smile at a stranger. Wouldn’t it be lovely to take this attitude back home with you, especially in these times when we seem to be sorely in need of a little more kindness?

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Sing, Dance, Drink, Repeat: Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2018

I’m always reluctant to return to the ‘real world’ after another four days packed with amazing live music and lots of happy people at Shrewsbury Folk Festival (24-27 August 2018). I made my way to Shropshire on the train on Thursday as usual, set up the happy tent (stewards get an extra night on site) and then headed into town for a charity shop crawl, a nice pub dinner and a pre-festival live session in the Woodman pub. It’s the simple things in life that count!

SFF18 Happy TentFriday is always the first official festival day and the excellent Irish Daoiri Farrell Trio opened the Bellstone Marquee (biggest stage), followed by the fiddle playing step dancing Fitzgeralds from Ottawa Valley in Canaday, a welcome return after their fab debut last year. I then headed over to the Pengwern Marquee (second biggest stage) for Rusty Shackle, a Roots and Americana outfit from Bristol, who really got the crowd going, and somehow day one was already over much quicker than I thought.

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On Saturday I spent most of the morning in town catching some of the morris displays from festival sides (pictured above is Shrewsbury Morris) and was back at the festival site (a short walk or shuttle bus ride) just in time for one of the world music collaborations, Chinese flute player Guo Yue and Joji Hirota with the London Japanese Taiko Drummers. What a fascinating set alternating between powerful drumming sounds and graceful Chinese flute melodies. Shooglenifty and Dhun Dhora, singing in Gaelic and Marwari respectively, were another successful example of a meeting of two very different cultures with rich musical traditions.

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It’s easy to see why Americana singer-songwriter Yola Carter from Bristol is a star in the making. Her set in the Pengwern Marquee was mesmerizing and fair play for doing a song acapella after the microphone failed, which was one of the very special festival moments this year. I left Richard Thompson in the Bellstone Marquee to his stalwart fans and instead headed over to the Sabrina Marquee for one of my two favourite dance sessions this year, the fabulous Mankala with band members from no less than seven countries. Their high energy and completely addictive mostly African fusion sound had even the most reserved audience members at least clapping by the end and most of the rest of us on our feet from start to finish. So much fun and a great example that folk music encompasses a huge range of traditions from all around the world.

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Sunday was another bumper day with a great mix of sounds. The wonderful Passerine project, initiated by and including English folk duo O’Hooley and Tidow was back for a second year, this time with ‘Women in Transit’ and again some incredibly moving stories. Apart from the three main stages, there is also the club as in dance tent, which I managed to finally visit after all the live music had finished. Oh well, one ceilidh dance is better than none.

Usher’s Island wasn’t a band name I was familiar with before the festival, but it turned out it was an Irish traditional super group made up of Andy Irvine, Donal Lunny, John Doyle, Paddy Glackin and Mike McGoldrick. What a privilege to get to hear these legends of Irish music play a set together, sublime. This was followed by one of the best Americana singer-songwriters around, Nashville-based Gretchen Peters who treated us to some of her classic songs as well as new ones from her current album ‘Dancing With The Beast’. I was glad I headed over to the Pengwern Marquee right afterwards for a bunch of much more lively musicians as I managed to catch the end of Scottish band Skerryvore’s first ever set at the festival.

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As I’ll soon be living in Scotland I decided I should probably make friends with the sound of bagpipes (still quite a while to go, mind) and really enjoyed their full set on the main stage on Monday afternoon. I spent the rest of the festival in the Pengwern Marquee listening to The Mighty Doonans from Newcastle and the by now traditional festival finale, the folk slam with Jim Moray. This year’s featured artists included Rosie Hood, members of Rafiki Jazz, Jack Rutter, Elly Lucas, Sam Carter and some fabulous step dancing by members of The Mighty Doonans as well as The Fitzgeralds.

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I personally always focus on listening to as much live music as possible, but SFF offers so much more, you can learn to play an instrument (see pic of beginners ukulele jam further up), your children can pick up som circus skills, you can learn traditional dances from around the world, do yoga, eat your way through the many yummy food offerings and visit the lively and very friendly town of Shrewsbury (lots of charity shops, cafes and history to explore). Every year (7th in a row this time!) I greatly enjoy meeting the usual combination of repeat festival goers and fellow stewards who I’ve known for a while and always enjoy catching up with plus the festival newcomers, and the many lovely pooches (pictured above are adorable duo Amber and Archie) as well-behaved dogs are allowed at the festival, just not inside the venues.

So if you are still thinking Shrewsbury might be a little far for you to come ‘just’ for a festival, think again as it really is one of the best places for music lovers to spend an enjoyable weekend among like-minded people. Plus with ca. 5000 seats in three huge indoor venues, you never need to worry about the weather or not getting to see your favourite artist. Oh and one last thing: don’t be fooled by the ‘folk music’ label, it is a very broad and inclusive church and if you’re open-minded, you’ll definitely have a fantastic time. Try it out for a day next year or, even better, go straight for the ‘full monty’, it’s simply unmissable!

Genre-Defying Live Music With A Message: Cambridge Folk Festival 2018

Unlike the very rainy 2017 edition, Cambridge Folk Festival, which took place one week later than usual from 2-5 August 2018, managed to avoid any downpours this time around. Instead, it got caught in the continuing heatwave, which made it look like we were in sunny Spain or Portugal rather than South East of England.

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The festival began with a very impressive Thursday night lineup, the lively Whiskey Shivers from Austin opening stage 2 and a fabulous set by Scottish musical collaborators Kris Drever, John McCusker, Roddy Woomble (of Idlewild) and Louis Abbott (of Admiral Fallow) followed by the fantastic all-female Kinnaris Quintet from Glasgow at the Club Tent. So far so excellent!

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When I talk to people who don’t usually listen to folk music, they often don’t realise what a wide variety of genres are represented at folk music events. A great example were Songhoy Blues (see pic above), a rock band from Mali with a seriously danceable groove, and Saturday night headliner, punk poet and feminist icon Patti Smith, who, once on stage, immediately asked for the smoke to be turned off in no uncertain terms. As a nod to the folkie audience, she included ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ by Bob Dylan in her set and seemed impressed with the audience’s singing skills. The inofficial award for the best audience participation this year went to the Pierce Brothers from Australia, however, playing a set on stage 2 on Friday night, when everyone just kept going with one of the choruses after the song had finished and the band picked it up again to huge applause.

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Rhiannon Giddens’ (see pic above) curator role this year (including booking Yola Karter, Amythyst Kiah, Kaia Kater and Peggy Seeger) was noticeable in all the right ways and it was generally great to see that the festival continues to champion female voices, including their commitment to the Keychange equality movement. Artists of all ages were speaking out about equality and about resisting a more and more selfish culture. Sister duo First Aid Kit from Sweden talked about sexual harrassment during their set on Friday saying that “the blame and shame of rape crime should always belong to the perpetrator, not the victim.” The couple of half-drunk men right behind us (who left after some of us reminded them several times that we were interested only in the music rather than their shenanigans) were proof that even at a very friendly festival like CFF, there are always the odd situations when you need to make clear that disrespectful behaviour, like shouting ‘give us a kiss’ at artists on stage or disrespecting women’s personal space in a crowd, is not acceptable.

UK singer songwriter and activist Grace Petrie, who played stage 2 on Friday night (check out her song ‘I Wish The Guardian Believed That I Exist”), Prince Edward Island-based Irish Mythen and the one and only Janis Ian all had various songs highlighting the shortcomings of today’s society and politicians, homophobia and sexism. The most poignant and outspoken of all was most likely one of Janis Ian’s newly written songs entitled ‘She Is, She Is (Resist)’, which went “when they say you don’t have a right to exist, persist, resist, persist and resist, resist resist, resist!”. Hear, hear.

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The protest song is certainly alive and well and folk festivals, such as Cambridge, continue to attract a large cross section of people from many backgrounds, ages and places. This year I spoke to festival goers from all across the UK, Ireland, Iceland, and as far as Mauritius and Australia.

On top of all the first class acts on the main stages, there are also always lots of other activities on from 10 am until late during the festival weekend. You can do yoga, willow or drawing workshops, learn to play a new instrument or listen to talks by festival artists, such as the Women in Music session in the Flower Garden on Saturday or join a songwriting workshop with Eliza Carthy in the Club Tent on Friday morning.

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My favourite events were two workshops on Sunday. The first one was a singing workshop with Nashville-based singer songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman, whose set that night on stage 2 was also fabulous. In her morning session (see pic above) she had various people come up to help them make the best of their own voice and it was incredibly fascinating what a difference ten minutes with a skilled teacher and a supportive crowd can make.

The other event was a youth singing workshop with Boston-based Americana group Darlingside, who are known for their incredible harmonies (see pic below). They certainly passed on their love for music to the youngsters attending the afternoon session in The Hub and the band singing ‘White Horses’ accompanied by a choir of young people harmonising on it was the one festival moment this year that’ll stay with me for a long time.

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Last but not least, here are a few personal festival tips: Make sure you don’t miss out on the Den stage with many amazing upcoming acts (it’s also much less crowded than the main stages), the lovely cafe and the flower garden, both in the same area by the duck pond; bring something to sit on, but ideally not a hardbacked chair as they are not allowed inside any venues; your own food and drink is OK to take along, just no glass; don’t forget the Coldham’s Common campsite has an afterhour open mic venue (until after midnight) and a free shuttle bus runs there every few minutes from Cherry Hinton Hall; a lot of the artists sign their CDS (and some do selfies with punters) at the Mojo tent near stage 2; be kind to others, don’t take up any more space than you need in the already crowded outside arena, don’t block any exits and get up from your blanket inside the tents when it gets busy; finally, be spontaneous, play along if someone starts a Mexican wave in the shuttle queue, bring your ukulele and start your own session and don’t just be a spectator – folk music is for participating and the community is only as friendly and welcoming as each one of us!

A Music Weekend in the Midlands: Gate to Southwell Festival 2018

The Gate to Southwell Festival (7-10 June 2018) was a last minute addition to my summer festival calendar this year and a really pleasant surprise! Having arrived from London via Nottingham by train it was a mere five-minute walk from Rolleston station to the festival site. Intriguingly, our designated stewards camping was located on the grounds of the Rolleston racecourse, so I set up my tent next to the parade ring and the women’s toilets had a ‘lady jockeys’ sign on it and saddle holders installed on the walls.

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As I got to Southwell (pronounced as it looks by most locals and ‘Suthel’ seemingly by anyone else) a day early I hitchhiked into town to get supplies and had a look around the Minster, whose two impressive towers also feature on the festival logo. I also came across a few of the especially decorated gates, a lovely idea to link the festival with the town through the ‘decorate your gate’ competition (see this year’s winners, sisters Sophie & Caitlin, below).

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After a relaxing morning, I was based at the box office on Thursday afternoon until the night of Blues started at the Big Top. The standout artist of the night was Li’l Jimmy Reed, a 77 year-old living breathing blues machine, who came down from the stage a few times during his set to play amongst the audience (apart from the Frontier Stage with just a few benches strewn about, all festival venues are seated). There were also some more live acts on at the same time in the Barleycorn Stage adjacent to the main festival bar and I headed over there at around 10pm for a set by Banter, a quirky ceilidh band like no other witha self-proclaimed ‘disregard for musical boundaries.’

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The main festival takes place from Friday until Sunday night, so it makes sense to stay until Monday morning, which unfortunately wasn’t possible for me this time around. Despite the festival site not being huge, the four main stages are arranged in a way that there is almost no noise interference from the other tents, which is fantastic. I was back at the box office on Friday afternoon and by the time I was finished with my shift, a lot more festival goers had started to arrive. I had really been looking forward to seeing both Blue Rose Code and Don Mescall, but both sadly had had to cancel at the last minute. Instead I gave Mongoose, a young, all female band from Ireland a try as well as East Anglian folk and Americana band The Shackleton Trio. The Friday headliner was Lindisfarne, a Newcastle folk rock band hugely popular in the 1970s, and I finished off my night with a spot of ceilidh dancing with Banter at Hoofers, an indoor venue at the race course, just a hop skip and jump away from my tent.

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After a fairly quiet first two days, Saturday was packed with a busy programme in town and at the festival site. The sun was shining and when I got into Southwell on the festival shuttle bus (ca. 3km, Friday until Sunday, £2 return) the town seemed transformed. There was a bustling market in a central square and at 11am the Morris parade started winding its way along King Street with lots of lively music and colourful costumes, including Harlequin Morris (see pic below).

GTSW Harlequin Morris

There were also a number of free events for locals to get a taste of the festival artists and I’m so glad I caught one at the Final Whistle pub, a beautiful disused train station, where Americana artists Vivian Leva from Virginia and Riley Calcagno from Seattle (see pic below) played a short but wonderful set in the courtyard. They were my favourite festival find and I’m sure they’ll be back in the UK many more times.

GTSW The Final Whistle Pub

After getting back to the festival site, Saturday continued with a varied programme on the four stages, which included Canadian fiddling and step dancing sensation The Fitzgeralds, celtic-inspired contemporary folk band Ranagri (Fort of the Hare), whose danceable repertoire included a ‘Brexit Charleston’, and quirky US duo Truckstop Honeymoon, who I hadn’t seen live for a couple of years and had almost forgotten how great and funny their songs were. Another Americana highlight was the evening’s headliner Gretchen Peters with some fabulous new songs and an impressive back catalogue as well.

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On Sunday morning I made one last trip into town for a latte at The Old Theatre Deli, very friendly café with delicious food right in the centre of town before enjoying the final day of the festival. There were so many acts on at roughly the same time who I had not seen before that I decided to switch between the stages, which was unproblematic as there were always some spare seats in each venue. Despite missing the Sunday headliner Cara Dillon, as I was already on my train back to London by the time she was on, I caught lots of other good acts, such as Scotsman Kris Drever, blues and roots guitarist and singer Martin Harley, Lincolnshire duo The Rye Sisters as well as Canadian songwriter James Keelaghan with Hugh McMillan.

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My favourite event of the day, if not the weekend, was the Tune & Verse & Ditty Challenge, a sort of a celebrity musical pub quiz led by Keith Donnelly on the Frontier Stage. It included questions from the world of folk and roots music and beyond and the two competing teams consisted of some of the Young ‘Uns, Rod Clements of Lindisfarne and various other musicians playing the festival this weekend. I hope it’ll continue to be part of the festival programme in future years, do not miss as it was brilliantly entertaining.

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If you like your festivals small and relaxing where you never really need to worry about getting a good seat while still seeing to top class acts from the world of folk, roots and Americana music, Gate to Southwell is a great choice. There was also plenty of food to choose from (Thai, pasta, fish & chips, wood oven pizza, Leon’s vegetarian, bubble waffles, ice cream and an espresso stall) and two bars with seating. Families with children were also well catered for with lots of entertainment, such as the hilarious Dan the Hat with his juggling and comedy acts as well as stalls with toys and a kids area with a story tent, games, a van to decorate with paint and even a petting zoo. The animals included goats, giant rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens and tortoises and were well looked after. The festival offers a range of ticket options including ‘taster tickets’, which allow you to enjoy the festival during the day with family and friends, but exclude the main evening concerts. But would want to miss those impressive evening lineups?

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Sunshine & Good Times: Folk Weekend Oxford 2018

The recent heat wave coincided perfectly with the seventh Folk Weekend Oxford (19-21 April 2018), which seems to get better every year. It’s one of those festivals where you might not know very many of the bands on the line-up beforehand, but which always delivers in terms of quality, fun and a friendly community feel, something many of the larger festivals simply cannot offer.

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Before my first stewarding shift on Friday night I had plenty of time for a pizza in the sunny backyard of The Rusty Bicycle pub and a leisurely stroll around the Cowley Road charity shops. Then I was off to St. Barnabas church in the Jericho neighbourhood, just north of Oxford City Centre. The ceilidhs always draw quite a crowd (up to 200 dancers) as the festival puts on fantastic live bands every year and this time was no exception. I was very impressed with the sound of Banter, one of the most quirky ceilidh bands I’ve come across so far, whose sound goes far beyond English traditional music including jazz, pop and soul influences. Unsurprisingly, they were a huge hit with the dancing crowd. The night also included a performance by local rapper (sword dance) team Mabel Gubbins.

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After an incredibly sunny Friday, I woke up to more sunshine and met up for breakfast with a friend for coffee and exceptionally good cake at Barefoot Café on Walton Street before checking out some of the morris spots around town for live dancing with sides from various traditions, including Black Annis Women’s Morris and their adorable canine mascot Hattie (see pic further down). Around lunchtime we headed to one of my favourite Oxford venues, the airy hall of the Quaker Meeting House for a concert of traditional folk music, which included Dan Evans and Rebecca Hallworth (see pic below). Dan is a renowned fingerstyle mountain dulcimer player who also held an interesting workshop on the history and different styles of instruments on Sunday afternoon.

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There was just enough time for dropping into Blackwells bookshop’s Norrington room for a set by young contemporary singer-songwriter Martha Bailey (see pic below) and a quick burrito dinner before my shift at the Wesley Memorial Church. The line-up consisted of Oxford vocal duo Hoverhawk, traditional singer Nick Dow and a solo set by one of the festival headliners, Eliza Carthy, who obviously drew the crowds for this event.

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On Sunday morning, during breakfast at the Nosebag restaurant, I got talking to another festival goer, who told me their Appalachian dance team, Cornucopia (see pic below), would be performing around lunchtime in the pedestrian area on Cornmarket. Their spot was one of my favourite performances all weekend and got a lot of positive reactions from locals and tourists alike. I then made my way over to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Centre where I caught half of the Topette workshop, a French-Anglo collaboration including Andy Cutting. They played some very beautiful dance tunes and spoke about the joys and challenges of working together across cultures and borders.

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As I had not managed to join any workshops yesterday, I decided it was time for some dancing on the festival’s last day. So I took part in the Harlequin Morris Cotswold morris workshop (hankies and bells) for an hour. After we had warmed up for a few minutes we got taught a routine of various steps, jumps and hanky movements accompanied by accordion music. Let’s just say it was an ‘interesting experience’ and is a lot harder than it looks, but I think I’ll stick to Irish set dancing in future. It was great to see, however, that the class attracted people of all ages, including some enthusiastic youngsters, and we did manage to learn a whole routine in the short time we had.

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My last event of the festival was a great ‘Meet the Artist’ session with Ross Couper (from Shetland, now based in Glasgow) and Tom Oakes (from Devon, now based in Edinburgh). I had last seen the pair play one of the BBC Seirm recording sessions at Celtic Connections back in January and had been well impressed by their energetic performance and expert use of fiddle (Ross) and guitar (Tom).

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Of course, I managed to only catch a fraction of the huge programme for all ages, which was on offer during the weekend. I love supporting smaller festivals and I’m always amazed at how entirely volunteer-run events, such as Folk Weekend Oxford, manage to pull off such a big event so well. It’s usually down to a lot of hard work by a dedicated committee and many volunteers (like Jo, Rosie & Penny in first picture) throughout the year.

I highly recommend visiting the beautiful city of Oxford (picture above is Christ Church) during the festival to see for yourself what a positive impact such a community event can have. You might come back with a new idea what grassroots arts are all about, get a more in-depth understanding of local heritage and culture and have a lot of fun with like-minded people!

25 Years of Celtic Connections – The Anniversary Festival 2018

This year was the 25th anniversary of Celtic Connections in Glasgow (18 January – 4 February 2018) and the festival has come a long way from its humble beginnings. Year after year it attracts a huge number of visitors not just from Scotland and the UK, but also from other parts of Europe and further afield. As most of the concerts happen in the evenings, lots of visitors use the festival as an excuse to explore other parts of Scotland on day trips, which are easily accessible by train or bus from the city. Celtic Connections also always manages to get a lot of fantastic musicians together on stage for special collaborations, e.g. various tribute nights (Tom Petty, Songs of the Gael, Scotland Sings Canada), usually with an impressive all star line-up.

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This year I’d also decided to make it a proper holiday and stayed eight nights in total. I was a volunteer artist liaison for three concerts on three consecutive days right after I arrived, which kept me busy pretty much 24/7. My first concert was a night of outstanding traditional music with The Fretless (pic below), a Juno award-winning quartet from Canada with support from Scottish musician Ewan Robertson and friends at St. Andrews in the Square church. Glasgow has quite a few churches turned music venues and this one is one of the nicest. The next day I looked after Corb Lund from Canada and Hayes Carll from Texas, both country music artists. They shared the stage for their performance in another beautiful former church, St. Luke’s near the Drygate Brewery, north east of the city centre and it was a great night of Americana intersected with brilliantly funny banter.

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Most people don’t realise when they are attending shows as an audience member just how much work goes into putting on live music events. From pre-planning it months in advance, sorting out accommodation, transport and food to dealing with tech issues, merch logistics and all sorts of other bigger and smaller last-minute requests, like unexpected schedule changes (e.g. additional performances at the festival club on the night of the concert), lots of things can happen, which might require a change of plan.

The artists themselves might have just flown in from another continent, jet lagged and maybe missing parts of their equipment, having to do interviews with various radio stations and journalists on the go. So we’re always trying to give them the best experience and make things as easy for them as possible. If all goes smoothly, the artists will step on stage with a smile on their face, a perfectly tuned instrument in their hands and everyone will have an enjoyable night. And as a volunteer, you breathe a big fat sigh of relief that all your efforts and those of the festival staff have been worthwile!

My third concert as an artist liaison was Cara Dillon with support by The Fretless, in the New Auditorium right in the Royal Concert Hall. I had only seen Cara at Cambridge Folk Festival once before and it was fantastic to experience her beautiful, moving songs in a hall with great acoustics for a change. Her excellent band on the night included Sam Lakeman, John Smith and, for a few songs, The Fretless as well.

The RCH is a huge multi-space venue in the centre of Glasgow with a large, confusing web of hallways and backstage areas connecting the different performance spaces behind the scenes. From preparing dressing rooms, sorting out riders (carrying food, drink and ice buckets around), liaising between bands who are sharing a stage, organising access keycards, sharpies and blue tack to getting set lists printed, there is always a long list of to do items to tackle on the day of a gig. But it’s also really fun to work together on something exciting and then sitting back and seeing it unfold in front of you once all the work is done. Plus you get to hear the sound checks and get a much more in-depth experience of an event.

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On my days off I finally made it to the medieval Glasgow Cathedral from 1136, which is a beautiful space, and to the multi-faith Victorian Necropolis on the hill beside it. The winter light was amazing that day and once you climb to the top, it has some fantastic views across the city. So does The Lighthouse museum and art centre near the Central Station, take the lift to the 6th floor viewing platform and enjoy (see first pic in the post). I also took lots and lots of pictures of Glasgow’s many stunning murals, my favourite being the Modern Day St. Mungo by Smug (see pic above) on High Street, but they are all over town and there is a proper Mural Trail to follow, if you fancy it.

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Another day I visited the small, but very informative Glasgow Police Museum staffed by friendly retired police officers. Glasgow had the first police force in Britain and as it’s a small two-room museum, you can easily add it to your schedule and learn some interesting facts about the city and its inhabitants past and present plus see a well-curated collection of uniforms through the ages and from quite a number of other countries, too.

I also attended more concerts. Dougie MacLean  (pic below) had a headline show (with support by Yvonne Lyon) in the Main auditorium of the Royal Concert Hall and I had made sure I had a first row seat for it. On Sunday night, I returned to St. Lukes to see The Barr Brothers from Montreal. They’ve had quite a few changes in their band line-up since I’ve last seen them and I’d also not heard their new songs live. But the beautiful church venue was the perfect backdrop and I especially enjoyed hearing favourites like Half Crazy and How The Heroine Dies. Andrew remarked how much they appreciated the quiet, respectful atmosphere, it was just a lovely night.

Dougie MacLean CCFest 2018.jpg

Hazy Recollections at the O2 ABC is an afternoon show curated by Findlay Napier and there are always some interesting artists to discover, this time including James Edwyn & The Borrowed Band from Glasgow. Having been to it three years in a row now in this venue, I still enjoy finding new artists, I just really think it deserves to be moved to a more atmospheric place, such as one of the church venues, rather than a nightclub during daytime.

I also had a lot of fun at the BBC Alba ‘SEIRM’ recordings I attended and managed to make it to all three this year. What’s so nice about it is that the Hillhead Bookclub in Glasgow’s West End is such a cosy venue and once you have a table you can enjoy the show without having to worry about people chatting in the background as it’s being recorded for TV and everyone has to be quiet (!) during the performances – perfect!

There are usually around four or five artists on between 6pm and 11pm and every single one this year was pretty amazing. They included US mandolinist and bluegrass singer Sierra Hull, I’m With Her (Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins & Aoife O’Donovan), with wonderful harmonies on the first night and Lau (just as a trio, see pic below) on the second night. The third night was probably my favourite with Irish singer Declan O’Rourke & band, Scottish-English musicians Ross Couper & Tom Oakes, Senegalese-Lithuanian duo Solo & Indre (such a beautiful sound) as well as The Secret Sisters from Alabama. All three sessions will be on BBC Alba sometime this spring.

Lau at Seirm CCFest 2018.jpg

On top of all this, I did extremely well this year catching four nights of the festival club at the Arts School. It’s a great way to wind down or (get dancing) with a pint after one of the official gigs and the line-up generally consists of a selection of that night’s festival artists, which was great as there is so much on every night, it gives you a chance to see artists you missed, such as the excellent Nashville-based Molly Tuttle & band.

Of course, the deepest winter is not the greatest time to visit Glasgow in terms of weather, but that is also your best excuse to while away many hours in great company listening to the crème de la crème of folk, Americana and other genres in some stunning venues. So put January 2019 in your calendar now for the 26th edition of Celtic Connections and you’ll practically be guaranteed the perfect antidote to post-Christmas blues!

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with review tickets for some events. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

Room For All: A Guide for Shrewsbury Folk Festival Newbies (including festival review 2017)

I first attended Shrewsbury Folk Festival in 2012, signing up as a volunteer very last minute and had a wonderful time, as it is just an incredibly well-run and relaxed event. It not only bursts at the seams with incredible live music and dancing, it also has an ideal location being walking distance from the centre of the historic English town of Shrewsbury, in Shropshire, not far from the Welsh border.

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The 2017 Festival

For me, this year’s Shrewsbury Folk Festival (26-28 August 2017) was all about collaborations. Some of the exciting collaborative projects were The Passerine (Folk duo O’Hooley and Tidow with musicians from Egypt, India, Sudan and other countries) as part of the new Room For All Initiative celebrating cultural diversity, all female ‘supergroup’ Coven (Grace Petrie, O’Hooley and Tidow, Lady Maisery) and the closing performance in the newly named Bellstone tent (Marquee 1) ‘Faith, Folk & Anarchy’ with Steve Knightley, Tom Robinson and Martyn Joseph. As festival co-founder Alan Surtees sadly passed away earlier this year, there were lots of emotional tributes to him as well as a CD to support the newly created Alan Surtees Trust. Other local and international artists included Loudon Wainwright, Le Vent du Nord, Skippinish, The Unthanks, Daphne’s Flight, Sarah Jarosz, the Oyster Band, Joe Broughton’s Conservatoire Folk Ensemble, The East Pointers and Ragged Union. While SFF is very much dedicated to folk music in its many forms, performers from other genres, such as the excellent Stockholm based US blues musician Eric Bibb this year, also always find a musical home here. My favourite new discoveries were The Fitzgeralds from the Ottawa region of Canada, who also offered an excellent step dancing workshop, which was attended by well over a hundred people. There was also a new stage this year, The Launchpad, near the food and bar area, showcasing up and coming musical talent, e.g. the excellent The Trials of Cato (who are based in Wales, but met each other in Lebanon, of all places).

Eric Bibb SFF 2017.jpg

What accommodation options are there?

As a general punter you can arrive to pitch your tent from Friday morning (the music starts in the early evening) and the festival programme usually finishes around early evening on Monday, so most people leave around then or stay until the next morning (the last unofficial gathering in the onsite Berwick bar with lots of craft beer and cider on tap is always a highlight). If you’re in a campervan, you can park it beside your car or a car park across the road, depending on how much space there is when you arrive. I always come by train and the taxi to the site is less than 5 pounds or a 10 minute walk. There are three permanent toilet buildings (the one in the bar has mirrors and plugs for drying your hair) plus some nice toilets with sinks dotted around the site. The free showers are also good (and nice and hot) and there are drinking water taps available, too. Alternatively, Shrewsbury has a number of great hotel and B&B options, just make sure you book fairly early as it is a very popular weekend (with other events like a large steam fair on as well).

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What is it like to volunteer at the festival?

I always have a great time volunteering at SFF. You make new and meet up with old friends, are part of a lovely motivated team and help making the festival a success. In exchange for about 15-16 hours of work, you get a festival and camping pass for the weekend and work shifts of 2-4 hours at a time. You can also arrive a day early on Thursday from lunchtime. It is advisable to sign up as early as possible, i.e. email the festival for more details about steward applications. You can then choose one of the teams to work in, but please be aware that you might not always end up on your preferred team (especially if it’s your first time) and that it is not always possible for you to see all the artists you might want to see (but you can always try and request one or two). Some shifts also run fairly late (I had an evening shift until 1am), but this depends on your particular team. You can also volunteer to do setup and takedown, if you have time to arrive early and leave late and thereby be free during most of the festival.

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What kind of food and drink can I expect?

There is an outdoor food area around a large tent with tables and seats right beside the main marquee and it offers all the food you could possibly want (burgers, pizza, Mexican, Indian, Italian, fish & chips, two specifically veggie/vegan stalls, sandwiches, coffee, ice cream and cakes). This is supplemented by two large bars, the Berwick bar in an actual building and the beer tent beside the food area, both with tables and chairs, so you definitely won’t go hungry and thirsty!

What is there to do at the festival apart from the live music concerts?

I tend to focus on the concerts, but I often meet people who spend all weekend in trad sessions or in the dance tent. If you play an instrument, there are many tuneworks sessions, which include fiddle, whistle, guitar, accordion, melodeon, ukulele and even mountain dulcimer. You can bring your own instrument(s) or, for some of the beginners classes, borrow one for the class or the weekend (but please confirm this before you arrive). There is a whole separate Children’s Festival section (0-10 years) with a circus tent, lots of music, craft and acrobatic workshops all weekend and a lovely lantern procession in the dark. Older kids (11-20 years) can join the Refolkus Youth Festival and also improve their samba drumming or singing skills, be part of a dance battle or try some aerial acrobatics.

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How accessible is the festival?

SFF does its best to be inclusive to everyone. The location has paths leading to all the main venues, which are suitable for wheelchair use and mobility scooters and wheelchairs can be rented for the weekend. Accessible toilets and showers are also available beside the Berwick bar and there is a special disabled camping area beside between the Sabrina marquee and the bar. Most of the venues have an easily accessible wheelchair area (usually in the front) and the volunteer stewards can point you to it in each venue.

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Can I bring my dog?

Yes, you can, if it’s friendly and you look after it well. Which means you pick up after it and don’t leave it in your car for hours on end. Dogs are not allowed inside the main music venues, but there is usually space on the grass at the back or side of the tents where dog owners can spread out a blanket and enjoy the show with their four-legged buddies. I petted so many nice dogs (you can see a selection on my Instagram account Cuddle a Dog a Day), including a number of adorable puppies, this year and it’s nice to find out their stories and a great way of getting to know people, which is super easy at SFF anyway as most people are very friendly. There are also many dog owners in Shrewsbury itself and there is a great app/website called Doggie Pubs to find out about dog-friendly places to eat and drink around the UK.

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Will I enjoy myself even if I’m not a big fan of folk music?

This depends a bit about how open you are to trying out new things. The good thing about folk music is that it covers many different styles and SFF only book top class musicians, so if you’re willing to be open-minded, you will definitely have a great time. Plus, you can learn a new instrument from scratch over the weekend, improve your dancing skills, do some yoga, browse the many clothes and pressie stalls or simply chill in the sun (which we’ve had buckets full of this year, not a drop of rain!). Don’t worry about visiting by yourself, it’s practically impossible not to get chatting to some friendly folkies at SFF and lots of people return year after year. You can always opt for a day ticket to start with and I’m sure it’ll be a weekend pass next time around ;-).

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Is it worth checking out the town of Shrewsbury while I’m here?

Absolutely. The birth place of Charles Darwin has a number of museums and historic sights and is just a lovely, lively town to explore any time of the year. During SFF there are lots of morris displays (my fav this year was Pig Dyke Molly from East Anglia) and a parade around town on Saturday and Sunday. The city’s many cosy pubs, cafes and restaurants serve excellent food, including quite a few veggie and vegan options and I often head into town for breakfast to start my festival day. I also always do a charity shop crawl as there are a good dozen or so dotted around the city centre. A few of them also have stalls at the festival itself. In addition, Shrewsbury hosts lots of other interesting events year round, including the Shrewsbury Literature Festival in November. Free festival shuttles take you in and out of town on Saturday and Sunday, but the ten-minute walk along the river is a great way to stretch your legs, especially if the weather is as nice as this year.

Sunset flags SFF 2017.jpg